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Hair shirt?

[ 2009-08-04 14:17]     字号 [] [] []  
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Hair shirt?Reader question:

In this sentence – I carried the anonymous letter with me, like a hair shirt meant to remind me, amid earthly joys, of the atonement to come – what does “hair shirt” mean?

My comments:

It means the letter was irksome and irritating.

Hair shirt, or hairshirt is a shirt made from animal hair or rough cloth. Needless to say, a hair shirt is uncomfortable to wear. The prickly hair or rough threads touch upon the skin like thorns, nails or needles, whichever sensation you prefer.                           

Kidding aside, that’s indeed the purpose of a hair shirt, also known as sackcloth, made for people to wear in olden times as a form of punishment, penitence or hardship training. Ever since olden times, you see, various cultures have had the same beliefs that one can fortify the mind by mortifying the body, that is, by deliberately depriving themselves bodily pleasures.

The Chinese, I’m afraid, are particularly good at this, making Zen or virtually any spiritual training such painful physical experiences that few people actually go through them. That’s why to the Chinese, the spiritual sphere in general is not a whole lot of fun. We therefore admire Tai Chi more as a form of ancient marshal art than something the average man would care to pursue on a daily basis today. And by a stretch you could even make a similar case for book reading – Parents make book reading sound like such a chore to children that the youngsters by and large hate school – many adults I know have stopped reading altogether after graduation.

Alright, I’ll quit sounding harsh (^-^). Here are media examples of “hair shirt”, often appearing in the phrase “wearing something like a hair shirt”, meaning they hate that something for it is irksome, painful, irritating, annoying.

1. Yao was the Rockets’ center when they were whipped by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, blew a 2-0 lead to the Dallas Mavericks coming home to Houston in 2005 and leads of 2-0 and 3-2 to the Utah Jazz in 2007. Then he watched helplessly with a broken bone in his left foot as the Jazz eliminated the Rockets in the opening round again last season.

Hair shirt?

All of which is why Yao has often used the same response this spring to every question this side of: How’s the weather?          

“Get out of the first round. Get out of the first round. Get out of the first round.”

Yao wears it like a hair shirt, an uncomfortable, irritating reminder that for all of his accomplishments in the NBA, he has not done the one thing that matters most – win in the postseason.

- For Yao, one and done is no longer an option, Yahoo! Sports, April 20, 2009.

2. Since the emotional rollercoaster that was election night, I’ve been thinking about why this election seems so life-changing and important to me. Why did Barack Obama's campaign make me almost ill with nervous energy, fear and hope?

I think (and this is still in formulation) that it’s because ever since I came here in 1997, I’ve admired America for the loftiness of its ideas. This is a country that is predicated on an idea of total equality, on the pursuit of happiness not for some, but for all. This seemed to me an admirable ideal and, however corny that sounds, noble.

Still, I saw evidence every day that all of us were not equal, that many were left behind and worse, that many Americans clearly thought the rest of the world was inferior. Despite this, I still maintained that it was amazing that a country would hold fast to these principles, that an ordinary man of modest means could fight in court to assert that he was as equal as that guy in his Lamborghini. And often win.

Then there’s my personal experience. I arrived in this country a nobody, simply wanting to write. In the intervening years, I was recognized, published, and elevated to some modest recognition. Many generous and patient people encouraged and mentored me, without regard to where I was from, the color of my skin or my gender. Yes, I know Americans take all this for granted, in fact we demand it here – but stop and think about all of the implications of this freedom to be oneself, to be defined by nothing else but talent and effort.

Then the last eight years happened. I was reminded every day how venal, selfish, small-minded and sinfully stupid some of my countrymen can be. I had to live with the fact that I was bringing up my child in a country that was dismantling its most cherished tenets at a terrifying pace.

I wore my citizenship like a hairshirt. It was like I was in love with someone who beat me, then the next morning said or did something that set me hoping again, only to punch me in the stomach that night. It tired me out, all this despair and hate.

- Don’t mention it, Barack, Rediff.com, November 21, 2008.

3. Maybe seeing how not to do it can help us to see more clearly. Here are some common misrepresentations (errors) about language learning:

 The hair shirt way of language learning: Monks of some orders use hair shirt, a shirt with something inside that itches their skin. They wear it all day long, don’t ask me why. Some people seem to think that language learning, like a hair shirt, must be painful to work. That’s not true. You'll learn a language much more efficiently with a Peruvian girl friend than with several years of grammar at school.

 The phonebook approach to vocabulary learning: Vocabulary, beyond the first 100 words, is best learned in context. Ask what the word means. Look it up in the dictionary when reading. Try to guess its meaning. But some people will tell you to learn huge word lists. That would be nice to learn all the necessary words like this, wouldn’t it? Yes, but it doesn’t work. You won’t be able to use words you learned in lists, they will never come to your mind quickly enough. All you can do with them is to get good marks.

 The physicist way to grammar: Ask a six year old to explain you verb conjugation and he will stare at you like if you were Freddy Kruger. But the same boy will tell you he eats and never he eat. Grammar is best learned by seeing examples and imitating (infering the rule) until your ear recognizes what sounds right and what does not. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to learn the grammar book by heart, then learn a few pages from the phonebook-vocabulary lists, and here you are, you have all you need! It just doesn’t work that way.

- FX’s essential guide to learning a language, Inglesonline.net, January 30, 2008.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.